The 92-year-old politician, who became president in the first elections following the fall of Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, had been in politics for more than six decades, with a mixed record.
Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi has died in a military hospital at 92, after suffering from a number of health concerns.
The North-African country is set to hold parliamentary elections on October 6, with Presidential votes on November 17.
Tunisia’s constitution dictates that Prime Minister Youssef Chahed assume the role of interim president for no longer than 60 days.
Essebsi was elected President of Tunisia in December 2014 in the first presidential elections following a popular uprising that saw the fall of autocratic leader Zine al Abidine Ben Ali. He served from December 31, 2014 up until his death and led campaigns for gender equality, although his long and controversial political past also cast a shadow over his presidency.
Old hand in politics
Born on November 29, 1926, the 92-year-old politician was an established fixture on the Tunisian political scene with a career that spanned more than 60 years, serving as foreign minister under Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president. He also served as interim prime minister following Mohamed Ghannouchi’s resignation as prime minister on February 27, 2011.
His strong advocacy of secular, democratic and liberal free-market policies brought him the enduring support of trade unions, businessmen and secularists throughout the country.
In April 2019, he declared that he would not be running for a second presidential term, in spite of his party’s calls for him to stand. Nidaa Tounes, the secular party Essebsi founded, has yet to present another candidate. Presidential elections are set to take place in Tunisia on November 17 2019, with a second-round on November 24 if no candidate is elected in the first round.
Essebsi, also a long-time speaker of parliament under autocratic leader Ben Ali's rule, won elections against the incumbent President Moncef Marzouki, in a polarising vote between the Islamic Ennahda party and Nidaa Tounes.
Marzouki had been elected by means of an interim constitutional assembly in 2011, following Ben Ali’s fall during popular uprisings.
While Essebsi emphasised the need for reconciliation following his victory, many critics believe his return to power promised the return of the Ben Ali-era political cadre.
Abuses of power investigated
In spite of the popularity that saw Essebsi elected as president, his long political experience came under the spotlight for a number of scandals.
An independent Tunisian commission accused Essebsi of being complicit in torture, alongside allegations of corruption levelled against his predecessor Ben Ali, who lives in exile in Saudi Arabia.
The former autocratic president was sentenced to 20 years in prison in absentia, on charges of murdering protesters in 2011.
The Truth and Dignity Commission, which was set up by the Tunisian government to investigate alleged crimes by those in power between the end of French rule in 1955 and the popular uprising that overthrew Ben Ali, published a report describing Essebsi’s role in mass arrests and show trials against opponents of Bourguiba, following an attempted military coup in 1962.
The commission uncovered 62,720 cases of abuses of power, of which at least 173 cases have been referred to a special court for offenders.
Essebsi had previously proposed a law in which officials charged with corruption can strike deals with authorities in return for immunity, and permission to continue to work in politics.
Return of autocracy
While Essebsi is constitutionally mandated to share power with the prime minister in a quasi-presidential system with built-in checks and balances to prevent the return of a Ben Ali dictatorship, he had nonetheless called for strengthening the role of the presidency.
Nidaa Tounes won the last presidential elections on a platform that promised to restore “the state’s prestige”. It only leads the ruling coalition in name, however, as Essebsi consolidated his rule quickly after taking power.
Many politicians in Nidaa Tounes have left the parliamentary bloc in protest, criticising the “family project” that saw the president’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, take control of the party.